You’ve got to wonder about the literary canon available to all of the Whos down in Whoville. If we had to guess, their libraries would likely just consist of a lot of cookbooks that feature recipes guaranteeing a perfectly cooked roast beast. But up on Mount Crumpit, the Grinch’s two-sizes-too-small heart would probably be taken by the emotive words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, though he’d never admit it.
“To be great is to be misunderstood,” Emerson once famously penned.
Even with all of the hobnobbing and eggnog-ing this time of year, it’s easy to feel misunderstood at Christmastime.
Just ask the Grinch. Or Charlie Brown, with his lopsided little tree. Or the poor, innocent fruitcake — actually, no. Sorry, fruitcake. We still think your chewy, radioactive-looking candied bits are evil.
In the botanical world, there’s probably no plant as mystifying or misunderstood as the poinsettia. It’d likely find solace in Emerson’s musings, too.
For one thing, many people hold onto the myth that the poinsettia is poisonous. (That’s been proven incorrect by researchers time and time again, though we still don’t recommend the plant as being a staple food item for good gastrointestinal health.)
And what many take for petals on the poinsettia, aren’t. The fiery, colorful things you see are actually called bracts, which are modified leaves with flower clusters.
It’s a peculiar shrub — yes, a shrub — one deserving of a better understanding. The folks at the Department of Horticultural Science at North Carolina State University champion the staple Christmas plant, not just during the holidays, but year-round.
Department head John Dole, who dons his poinsettia tie around his neck whenever he can, has been studying poinsettias for 31 years. While an undergraduate student, he worked under a professor who was looking to solve a problem with flower retention on poinsettias, and Dole was charged with the task of counting the buds every two days on all of the plants. That’s when Dole’s appreciation for the poinsettia began to grow.
“It’s a fascinating plant for a lot of reasons,” Dole says. “It has a lot of cultural significance to it, and it also has some really fun, quirky botanical things that make them interesting to work with.”
Take, for instance, the fact that when they are under environmental stress, they drop their flowers first, then leaves, and lastly, bracts. This is quite the contrary to most plants, which generally hold onto their leaves as long as they can in an effort to maintain normal levels of energy production during photosynthesis.
Dole and his colleagues have had the opportunity to learn a lot more about the plant during their participation in the North American Poinsettia Trials.
Raleigh is one of only three locations in the United States and Canada that accepts and researches rooted cuttings from all around the world as part of these trials. Growers, breeders, and suppliers use NC State’s findings to determine which varieties of poinsettias grow best, are the most attractive, and would fare well on the market.
Our state’s climate makes it an ideal place to grow the persnickety plant in greenhouses. In fact, behind California, North Carolina actually leads the country in poinsettia production.
This year at NC State’s greenhouses, there are 143 varieties on display, and that’s only a portion of what’s available.
“You can imagine with those sorts of numbers it’s really hard for industry to be able to sort through which ones are great and which ones aren’t,” Dole says.
Of course, everyone is familiar with the traditional deep red and Vestal white poinsettias that they’re used to seeing at the grocery store, but there are so many other novelty hues out there.
Denise Etheridge, greenhouse manager at Homewood Nursery in Raleigh, which partners with NC State for the trials, runs through the colors with the same fervor as Bubba in Forrest Gump, when he lists the different ways to prepare shrimp.
“You’ve got pink ones, dark pink ones, hot pink ones,” Etheridge says. “There’s an orange poinsettia — several different orange ones. We have one here called ‘Orange Spice’ that’s really cool.”
While most people only think of poinsettias during the holidays, the horticulture department is examining them at all seasons. Ingram McCall, an agricultural research specialist and Dole’s colleague, says that they receive the cuttings in July and August.
“We grow them for three weeks and then we pinch them so they start branching,” she says. “And then we just keep them fertilized, and they do their thing.”
In the spring, NC State holds an outdoor cut flower trial for poinsettias.
Native to the dry, tropical slopes of Mexico and Guatemala, poinsettias didn’t make their way to the United States until 1828 when South Carolinian Joel Poinsett, who was the first U.S. minister to Mexico, introduced them.
The poinsettia generally doesn’t flower until the days become shorter, but its blooming pattern alone isn’t what established it as a symbol of Christmas. That would require the work of a few smart marketers.
In the 1960s, California’s Paul Ecke Ranch started shipping the plants to news station sets and the White House to use as decorations. The public would turn on their TV sets, see the poinsettias, and want some of their own.
The poinsettia can sometimes test the patience of novices who care for it. It doesn’t care for the outdoors in the winter, but thermostat temperatures can dry it out. It’s not fond of television light, but craves the window variety.
The Goldilocks Principle is truly at work, but every so often, people find that the shrub over-extends its welcome well into the New Year.
“I often hear from folks who email me in March and say, ‘My poinsettia is still looking great. What do I do?’” Dole says. “I say, ‘Well, enjoy it.’”
Spring has its daffodils. Summer has its sunflowers. Fall has its chrysanthemums. And in the winter, poinsettias add color to darker days. So they, too, could use a little more love.